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A humane death or a lethal experiment? How Alabama’s controversial nitrogen execution works | US News


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Barring a last-minute court order, prison officials in the US state of Alabama will today escort a convicted murderer to a death chamber, where they will force him to breathe toxic levels of nitrogen.

It will be the first time anywhere in the world that a human being has been executed by nitrogen hypoxia.

The state attorney has called it “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever devised” – but the prisoner’s legal team say he is the test subject for a lethal experiment.

So what’s going on?

Alabama has one of the highest per capita execution rates in the United States, with 165 people currently on death row.

But like other states that have the death penalty, it has struggled to source drugs used for lethal injections. In 2010, pharmaceutical companies around the world started restricting sales to prison agencies.

Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi permitted nitrogen gas as an alternative in 2022, and it will be used for the first time on Kenneth Eugene Smith.

He was convicted in 1988 of killing a pastor’s wife and has already survived a botched execution, when prison authorities couldn’t find a suitable vein for a lethal injection.

This undated photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted in a 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher's wife. Attorneys for Smith are asking the Alabama Supreme Court to reject the state's request to set an execution date for him using the new execution method of nitrogen hypoxia, saying Friday, Sept. 22, 2023,  that Alabama is trying to make him the ...test subject... for the new method. (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP, File)
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Kenneth Eugene Smith. Pic: Alabama Department of Corrections via AP

How will the nitrogen execution work?

A heavily redacted protocol released by the courts sets out how the nitrogen will be used.

Smith will be secured to a gurney in the death chamber. He will be forced to breathe a high concentration of nitrogen gas from a pressurised cannister through a tightly fitting mask strapped to his face.

Prison staff will leave the room during the procedure because of safety concerns, though Smith’s spiritual adviser will be allowed to stay, as long as he signs a disclaimer.

Under the protocol, gas will be administered for 15 minutes or for five minutes after an ECG monitor shows his heart has stopped, whichever is longer.

But there are huge gaps in the information released, including details on how the oxygen-monitoring equipment is calibrated, how the nitrogen hypoxia system is operated, and how the system is shut down.

Nitrogen makes up 78% of the air we breathe. But increasing the concentration reduces the amount of oxygen available and that is ultimately fatal – people have died in workplace accidents due nitrogen asphyxiation.

Alabama state authorities say breathing a high concentration of nitrogen would cause a person to lose consciousness in seconds and die within minutes.

But even a small amount of air leaking into the mask could slow his death. Smith’s lawyers argued in court that he may choke on his own vomit or be left in a vegetative state.

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Nearly one hundred protestors gather at the state capitol building in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, to ask Gov. Kay Ivey to stop the planned execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)
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Nearly 100 people gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest against the execution earlier this week. Pic: AP

UN’s calls to halt the execution

The United Nations has called on Alabama to stop the execution, warning that there is no scientific evidence to prove that execution by nitrogen inhalation will not cause “grave suffering”.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights added that it “could amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international human rights law”.

There have been experiments on animals.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, rats show signs of panic and distress when forced to inhale the gas, including open-mouth breathing and seizure-like behaviour.

And veterinary scientists in the US and Europe advise that nitrogen should not be used to euthanise large mammals on welfare grounds unless they are first sedated.

Smith’s appeals against execution have so far failed.

There have been many means of execution in the past – including firing squads, electric chairs and lethal injections.

But the executioner has to pull a trigger, flick a switch, or activate a plunger. They perform the final act that kills.

With nitrogen hypoxia, it is Smith who will be killing himself with every involuntary breath.

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